Southern slaves emancipated by the movement of the Union troops fled into a war zone laced with hazards and potential catastrophes. Suddenly freed from their owners, many ran off without a chance to think, forsaking what shelter and sustenance they had had. They ran from places that were familiar, taking nothing, since for the most part, slaves were legally prohibited from owning property. They had their clothes on their backs. They ran from former masters toward the safety, the more certain freedom, that they understood lay behind Union lines. In other words, they ran across the theater of war. Males slaves were in particular jeopardy as they fled, because Confederates were keen to recapture them and return them to bondage, because, without slaves to labor for them, how could the rebel cause succeed?
The newly freed were refugees, but their personhood was still contested, as evidenced in the term “contraband” that paradoxically won them protection in the Union camps. In the war’s first months, northern and southern troops fought along the coast of Virginia, vying in the vicinity of Fort Monroe, which from before the war remained a bastion of the US Army. The fort’s commander, Major-General Benjamin F. Butler of Massachusetts, astutely realized that, by recognizing fugitive slaves as rebel property (“contraband”) the slaves could be “confiscated” and kept–that is, sheltered and cared for–on reaching the fort. Thus, the first “contraband camp” for former slaves was born. Over 400,000 freed people (representing about 15 to 20 percent of the entire slave population) eventually sought refuge in these places, run by the US government across the occupied South.
Fleeing slaves availed themselves of other hiding places as well. A sizable number gravitated to the town of Hampton, located just a short distance from Fort Monroe. One of the oldest settlements in the Virginia Commonwealth, Hampton then boasted the oldest Protestant church in the United States, as well as many beautiful old gardens and refined dwellings. Its residents had abandoned it in the face of the advancing Union army, leaving its precincts attractively vacant. Determined to prevent it from becoming the resort of defiant slaves and invading Yankees, a force of 500 mainly local Confederate soldiers crept in at night and preemptively set fire to the picturesque town.
The total devastation of Hampton’s old church and all its dwellings shocked everyone as proof of the nation’s descent into unmitigated bitterness and savagery. More to the point, the raiders’ actions struck sudden terror in the hearts of freed blacks hiding in the village. Escaping from the flames, they rushed out into the night, and, desperate to avoid injury or death at the hands of pursuing rebels, they ran in utter panic toward the safety of the Union fort.
Image: from this source.